LONDON — You might think London a curious locale from which to celebrate July 4th, or Independence Day as we say. But the city abounds with British citizens who admire our country. I spent the evening of July 4th in the vast and glorious edifice that is the English-Speaking Union, observing the 90th anniversary of one of the bloodiest battles of all time and certainly of World War I, the Battle of the Somme.
“July 4th,” one of the assembled Brits remarked, “it is the 230th anniversary of one of your happiest moments. Tonight we are observing one of our most unhappy moments, the Somme.” Well, at least my interlocutor had no hard feelings about Independence Day, though to hold a grudge after 230 years one would have to be a Serb or an Islamofascist. In fact, as I left the English-Speaking Union I noticed the Stars and Stripes flying from its facade.
What brought us together the other night was a reception for my friend Sir Martin Gilbert’s new history of this terrible battle, The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War. The book should be out in America shortly. Gilbert has written 78 books, beginning with his multi-volume life of Winston Churchill. He is the great man’s official biographer, and just last year his history of Churchill’s long relationship with America was published, Churchill and America. Gilbert is also one of the English language’s greatest living historians. So you can be sure his work on Churchill and America is well worth reading. He is also a very great lecturer, and as he prepared a brief lecture for the reception the room was packed, not only with members of the general public but also with fellow historians of note and with Lady Soames, Churchill’s surviving daughter. She is a very nice woman, unassuming, quite pretty for eighty or so years, and no cigar clamped between her teeth.
The Somme was misbegotten from the start. Britain’s allies, the French, were engaged in a brutal struggle against the Germans at Verdun and they prevailed on the British to mount a second attack on the Germans at the Somme. The British were dug in on one side, the Germans on the other. Prefatory to their infantry assault the Brits laid down a withering artillery barrage. Unbeknownst to them the artillery was not effective. In the respite between the artillery assault and the rush of the British infantry from their trenches and across the open field to the German positions the Germans set up their machine guns. The consequence was slaughter.
On the first day of the battle 19,240 British soldiers lost their lives. More than 36,000 were wounded. The battle went on from July 1, 1916, to November 19, 1916. Ultimately 300,000 lives were lost, counting the casualties of both sides. Twice that many were wounded. Many of the dead were very young, some just 15. The battle, it is said, left a “scar” on the nation. When in World War II Washington was intent on invading Europe, memories of the Somme weighed heavy on our British allies. Even the lion-hearted Churchill urged other strategies.
Martin Gilbert is “an historian,” he will tell you, “of the human condition.” So in this enthralling history he has quoted from the diaries and letters of the soldiers. He produces many maps and relates the tactics and strategies of the generals, but he also takes you into the trenches with the troops, some of whom went on to great fame, for instance, future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who was badly wounded. When Gilbert mentions a soldier who died in battle he adds a special touch. He tells readers where the man is buried, “to enable the reader who might visit the battlefield to pay his or her respects at the graveside.” Gilbert is a great student of battlefields and has visited the Somme many times. His knowledge of the terrain is one of the reasons his history is so vivid.
The casualties from war in Iraq are very much on the minds of both Americans and the British today. The death of two British soldiers in Afghanistan over the weekend made headlines here for several days. Thus I was mildly surprised when Lord Watson of Richmond, a distinguished Englishman of impeccable liberal credentials, in his introduction of Gilbert gently put our casualties into perspective. Compare what both of our countries have suffered in this war with what the British suffered in a day at the Somme. The allies did a good thing in beating back the Kaiser and the Coalition forces are doing a good thing in beating back the Islamofascists. At the end of the evening I purchased Gilbert’s book and asked him to inscribe it to a pal of mine who is leaving Washington to further serve his country. He is a Marine.